For many, 2020 has been one of the most challenging years in recent memory - but for Zoë Bell, it was 2018 that marked the beginning of the most testing period in her life.
While on the biggest job of her career, stunt coordinating and acting in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, the American-based New Zealander faced inconceivable personal traumas including a near-death accident of her then-partner, pregnancy loss and the passing of her mother, Tish.
As America went into lockdown Zoë and her partner relocated to Colorado, where after much soul searching they decided to go their own ways. With America itself undergoing huge trauma Zoe, a Kiwi girl through and through, decided to stay immersed in the nature she finds so grounding.
Mette-Marie Kongsved caught up with the star via Zoom to hear a story that would’ve broken many, but has somehow made Zoë even stronger.
MM: Let’s start in 2018, when your boyfriend at the time [Jacob Horn] had an accident resulting in severe brain injury. How did it happen?
Zoë Bell: I had given Jacob this electric one-wheel for his birthday, that morning. I've got a video of him opening it and being so excited. I literally said to him, ‘you have to be responsible on this because if you hurt yourself, it'll fuck me up!’
On his way home later, after a wonderful day, a car pulled in or out of a spot in front of him. He swerved, going 18mph without a helmet, and ate shit. We think he must’ve slammed his head into the curb.
He was in the hospital before we realised that it was really bad. I was outside smoking cigarettes with his dad, bitching to him about Jacob not taking responsibility and that I’d told him to be careful, ‘blah blah blah.’ And then he slipped into a coma. I was like, ‘I take it all back. I'm so sorry!’ I just wanted him to survive.
With Jacob facing a very long rehabilitation process, Zoë’s Kiwi parents, who were on holiday in the UK, immediately jumped on a plane and came to help out. Zoë’s mum Tish had a long career as a nurse, and her dad Andrew, as a doctor.
ZB: Mum and dad are just the most compassionate and curious characters and that, combined with their medical background, I felt like I couldn’t pay for better care for a brain injury patient. Not to mention the care that I instantly got from them. I needed my mum and dad. I hadn’t needed them since I’d been a young kid.
A few months later in early November 2018 - a few weeks prior to another two major life events (her 40th birthday and the wrapping of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) – Zoë walked in on her parents having a hushed conversation. She immediately knew something was wrong. It turned out, her mum had been sick and had started to cough up some blood. She had initially gotten better, but the illness had returned and now, seemed to be getting worse. Following a hospital visit a few weeks later, the doctors gave her the all clear.
ZB: The hospital did a chest x-ray, and they came back saying that it was ‘of nil significance,’. There were a couple of cloudy patches but that could have been due to her cough. They literally said the words ‘cancer free,’ and then gave her some ridiculously expensive inhalers and that was it.
We were of course all excited, but mom was weird and quiet. I honestly think she knew she had something that was bad, and the minute someone said she didn't have it and we were all relieved, it killed her. She knew she was holding onto information that was going to devastate the people she loved.
In the following week, Zoë’s mother got so weak that she couldn’t walk herself to the bathroom and they rushed her to the hospital.
ZB: By the time we got into the ER, she’d lost half her body weight in blood. And we didn't know where it had gone, because it wasn't coming out anywhere. Your normal haemoglobin levels are fourteen, they panic around nine, and she was at seven. They transfused her with bags of blood to stop her, well dying. And then did a bunch of scans and saw these massive tumours; she was bleeding all this blood into this tumour.
Her mother was immediately rushed to Cedars-Sinai hospital in central Los Angeles – the same ambulance ride Zoë’s then-partner Jacob had taken a few months prior, after his accident.
ZB: Turning up at Cedars that second time was so fucked up. Showing up there, even without the trauma is a lot, but the whole Jacob thing was just… I felt like, ‘I can’t be here again’.
Zoë’s mum was eventually diagnosed with angiosarcoma, a cancer that forms in the lining of blood vessels and lymph vessels. Doctors kept fluctuating between whether or not her condition was terminal, so the family started planning to get her home to New Zealand to recover there.
ZB: We thought we had at least eight months, my brother thought at least two years, and my dad, you know… No one thought it was going to be a month.
On December 27th 2018, Zoë’s mother Tish died at Cedars-Sinai, surrounded by her husband and children. Zoë’s brother, Jake, had only arrived from Melbourne that morning, mere hours before she passed away.
ZB: Jake arrived at the hospital around 9.30-10am, and she slipped into a coma with him sleeping next to her at around 11.30am. She was gone by three in the afternoon; we all got to be there when she took her last breath.
Getting her body back to New Zealand became a bureaucratic mess. The American government had deemed my mum and dad an “overstay”, since they had overstayed their visa - because mum was fucking dying!
She landed back in New Zealand at 6.38am on the morning of her funeral. Our New Zealand funeral director, an old family friend, literally went to the airport, picked mum up and took her to her funeral. And mum - in life - hated being late, it really stressed her out. She would become intolerable to be around, and so it became kind of a source of humour. But she made it.
MM: And that was all in the space of… six months?
Yeah, crazy. But don’t send money now… When mum got sick, my brother and I looked at each other and were both like - babies! Mum can’t not meet our children, and our kids can’t grow up not having known Tishie. So 2019 was a grieving, IVF-ing, messy hormonal storm that resulted in my getting pregnant, being really happy about it, seeing dad and my brother smile for the first time since mum died, then losing the baby and possibly the ability to make babies at all. I miscarried the same week my mum died the year before. My last day of bleeding was December 31, 2019. Poetic.
MM: After those tremendously hard two years and now moving through this crazy year, I really want to know: how are you? And I’m not asking in the casual rhetorical sense. I'm curious to know how you are actually doing.
ZB: I'm actually doing pretty great. This sounds sort of fucked up, but I feel like I have an unfair advantage based on the fact that 2018 and 2019 were so difficult and challenging for me. I'm just a little bit more capable of dealing with hard stuff, now. Comparatively, the way the challenges of 2020 have affected me personally is sort of nothing compared to what I went through in 2018 and 2019.
Those two years left me feeling like I was struggling to go through a normal day, to keep up with people. I felt like, ‘Tuesday? I don't know how to do this.’ It was like the end of the world as I knew it happened; it just felt like it was flying past me. And when the world came to a stop, I felt like I was catching up again.
Of course, I am deeply empathetic to the fact that it has been one of the hardest times ever for a multitude of people out there, and I'm not in a position where I've lost a house or can't feed my children. So, in appreciation of that fact, I also can say that I am in a situation where being forced to cease being part of the world has been really beneficial for me - it's been a real break where I got to just be really slow, instead of being slow and trying to be fast.
MM: You moved to Colorado in the early days of lockdown. Was the move specifically precipitated by the pandemic?
ZB: I think consciously pandemic, but maybe unconsciously thanks to the universe and what I was going through with all the shittiness of the previous two years.
At one point last year, I had gone on a sort of ‘Eat, Pray, Santa Fe’ trip, and while I was gone I thought to myself, ‘maybe I just don't go home for a minute.’ Then I bumped into some old friends of mine that I had not seen in eight years, who were living in Colorado opening a hotel. Two days later I rang my [then] boyfriend Jacob and told him, ‘I think I'm gonna miss my flight home.’
On the trip she had befriended a couple who ended up lending her a car - a little green topless VW bug - and giving her a chilly bin full of food and a joint or two. Then she drove herself to Colorado.
ZB: I showed up here on a Saturday night. Sunday morning at breakfast, I got on [the real estate app] Zillow, because that's how I like to familiarise myself with a town. And within half an hour, I was literally standing outside the front door of this house.
It instantly felt familiar, it felt like home. And it’s not that it looks like New Zealand at all, but it kind of has the same energy.
And, it's extremely bittersweet for me - I'll probably start crying - but it feels like my mum would love everything about this town, and she would love to help me decorate it and all that. That’s the bitter part. The sweet part is, it feels like a piece of her and I would never be here if she were still alive so it’s not really like she’s missing out.
Kate Sylvester leatherette coat, $799.
MM: I think humans that are part of you like that will guide you forever, in some way or another.
ZB: I honestly have no idea what my beliefs are about life after death, which is heartbreaking, sometimes. I can totally see why someone might dive into some spiritual belief or a religion or something that just gives you some definite explanation.
But the question that always kept coming up for me was: ‘What's the point?’ In the early days, that question was predominantly followed by, ‘There is no point.’ But the further I get from that dark place, the more it poses as an open- ended question to me, rather than as a statement.
With that comes opportunities and possibilities of thinking about things in totally different ways, which has actually been really liberating for me. Like, ‘What's the point in being afraid of attempting these things? You're going to die at some point, you might as well give it a nudge. What's the worst that can happen? You die? All right.’
MM: We’re all heading there, anyway.
ZB: Exactly. So that has brought me a moment of real freedom. Especially for me, walking into my next chapter as a director. Prior to 2018 and 2019, I was super excited about it but also really insecure and a lot of my fraudulent feelings would surface all the time.
But I went through the three of the worst things I could have imagined going through, back to back to back, and all revolving around life and death and babies. And I thought, if it can get that bad; if someone as bright and sparkly and important and profound as my mum can disappear and that's it, then surely ‘what's the point’ can be liberating. If there is no point, there's a freedom to there being no point. Because what's the stress? Just fucking commit and walk into some things.
MM: You feel a sense of fearlessness now?
ZB: When I went back to finishing Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, Jacob was at home and still needed a lot of care, so that first week going back to work was very strange. I've never felt so out of place on a film set. And film sets are my home. It’s where I'm most comfortable, aside from my parents’ house.I felt so outside of my own skin.
But I realised that any of the politics that felt really stressful, prior to Jacob nearly dying, I could now approach really pragmatically. I had to think rationally about any issues, because I actually couldn't afford to be emotional about any decisions. All I had was my rationale and my instinct. It’s a lesson I try to hang onto, because so easily we have experiences and then we move past them, and the lessons learned also get left behind with experience. I’m trying to keep those lessons present.
MM: That is so insightful.
ZB: I mean, I used to think that if I was emotionally disengaged, then I wasn't fully engaged. But now I realise that as an empath, sometimes being emotionally involved really costs me - and it doesn't actually add or benefit the situation. It wasn’t a conscious decision to shut that part of myself off. I just had other areas of my life that required my emotional side and I didn’t have anything left.
Karen Walker sunglasses, $329.
Karen Walker shirt, $525, leatherette shorts, $395.
MM: Let’s talk about your work, which has been on hold for obvious reasons. Early on in the pandemic, you put together the incredible Boss Bitch Fight Challenge. Can you talk about the process of putting all that together?
ZB: It was a really fluid process, actually. I just emailed a bunch of my stunt girlfriends and a couple of the actresses that I have worked with over the years. And everyone responded within a day and a half and were like, ‘fuck yeah. I want to do this!’ - which is sort of unusual. But people just were really inspired to be a part of it. It was such a joy to make, for that very reason.
I love that it kind of affected the world in that same way. It wasn't just famous hot chicks kicking each other. I had so much feedback where people told me they got emotional watching it or that they would put it on whenever they were feeling down, and it would make them feel better. Man, if I can spend my life creating content that gets that kind of response, that's why I want to be making movies.
MM: Speaking of making movies, I’d love to take it back to your early career. You’ve said that when you first started out doing stunts in New Zealand, the idea of a stuntwoman as opposed to a stuntman was still quite novel, but that you came in and immediately felt like you found your family and you became one of the boys.
I'm curious if you ever felt then or at any point in your career, that you had to hide parts of your femininity or womanhood to be able to be ‘one of the boys’ - the ‘cool girl’ who can ‘take a joke’?
ZB: When I look back, it doesn’t feel like that was expected of me. It just became my identity to be the jock tomboy. But I've recognised, looking back, that I wanted to belong and be accepted. And I was really good at sort of being a boy and I really wasn't that good at being a girl for a long time. So it kind of worked out for me in the sense. But it wasn't until I started acting and you know, committing to doing that job, that I recognised that it required me to be vulnerable.
It was like an opening, a transition for me to accept and finally appreciate my feminine side. For a long time, I felt like my womanhood held less value than my masculine side. To be clear, I never thought men were better than women. But my masculine side was clearly more valuable. I thought, ‘I don't make a good girl. I don't make a good woman. I don't make a good creative, because I'm just this masculine jock’.
MM: Do you think that the intense, immense pressure that society, and the entertainment industry in particular, puts on women to always be defined within a certain set of parameters of being beautiful, being thin, being agreeable, being young, being all this bullshit - do you think that propelled you even more to be like, ‘well, if I'm just boyish, I don't have to comply with all that’?
ZB: Yes. It stripped the competition out of it. It also stripped a lot of fear out of not being accepted for those things, because I had a niche market and it was perfect. There's not that many women in the world that filled the same kind of spot that I did. So I always felt kind of safe.
MM: Shifting gears a little… I’d love to talk about the next stage of your career. What are your personal ambitions for the next year?
ZB: I'm starting to figure them out now, but directing and acting are the two main things. And I'm not going to feel any shame about saying these things, because, as I have learned: what's the point? I'm excited to get to put myself out there for roles. I'm excited to audition, which is probably not usually the case. But I'm happy about feeling like I've got nothing to lose. And, what's the point in not getting excited?
With directing, it’s like the culmination of everything that I’ve learned from being a stunt performer and working with the actors: making them feel safe and pushing them to the edge, getting them to feel excited and confident, to give me what I need. All my time as an actor has also been profoundly important to me as a director. In this role as a director, I just feel wholly useful, and my favourite thing is to feel useful. My least favourite thing is to feel like tits on a bull. Ha!
MM: I totally get that.
ZB: I don't know if I believe that everything happens for a reason or whatever. But I do believe the only thing I have any control over is how I walk my path. So however I choose to take 2018/2019 and process it, whatever I choose to do with it is on me. And I feel that I'm a deeply different person. Not obviously different, but deeply different. Having gone through all of that, I feel like I have a whole different perspective on my whole life.
I used to have the internal ‘who am I?’ thing going. ‘Who am I to do that? Who am I to say no, who am I to say yes?’ But now I'm a bit like, ‘well, who am I not to?’
Honestly, I've been in this business since I was 17. I've worked with some of the best, I'm an intuitive person, I've got good instincts, I’ve had heaps of experience, and I now also know what real trauma feels like and can access all of that stuff. How does that not make a great storyteller in this business?
MM: And what's the point of not going for it?
ZB: Exactly. So that's sort of where I'm at. I'm feeling quite calm and excited.
MM: Okay it’s time for the interview epilogue, where we move into punchier questions.
ZB: Like, what’s your favourite colour?
MM: Haha, kind of! I have to remind myself that I’m writing for a Kiwi publication, so I feel compelled to ask, what is the thing you miss the most about New Zealand, apart from your family, of course?
ZB: I love the sense of humour. I love the realness and sense of priorities. It used to be that when I was feeling a bit cray-cray in Los Angeles, I'd be home in New Zealand for like a week and remember my priorities. I’d feel like I could easily settle down and become a plumber and be totally okay. My family and friends don’t care what I do, they just want me around!
MM: I feel like everyone deserves to have that feeling that you could just go somewhere and be a plumber and be okay.
ZB: It was legit an option for me at one point! I literally had a moment where I was like, ‘I hate LA. I'm just going to sell everything and fucking go home to the west coast of Auckland, buy a little place there. And I'll study plumbing or work at the library, and mum and dad can come and visit whenever they want. And I'll just get pregnant by some local dude, and that will be that.’ Just be simple and easy. Then I had a moment where I realised, ‘wait, I could actually do that. That’s literally an option to me. And I’m not doing that, so it stands to reason that I'm choosing to be here [in Los Angeles].’
That was so powerful because I had always felt kind of resentful of LA; like it was somehow keeping me there, forcing me to be there, and I felt stuck. It was a toxic, unhealthy relationship, actually. But when I realised that I was actually in this relationship by choice, it stripped a good chunk of the toxicity out of it because I was suddenly no longer stuck, I was there by choice.
So all the things that I hated about LA, I cease to hate. I could find peace in thinking that I like things in New Zealand better, but I can go home whenever I want, and there's something I want more here.
MM: Perfect segue, because my final question is very LA. You know how in yoga classes, they sometimes ask you what your intention for the class is? Well, what would be your intentions for the rest of this insane year that no one could have ever foreseen?
ZB: When I'm aware of having intentions, my intention is to be cognisant of knowing that everything's a choice of mine. Being cognisant of choosing. Like, my ex-boyfriend and I were going through this fertility thing, and pregnancy loss, which was really big and challenging. And, it was all on the tail of all this other stuff. But I made a conscious choice a couple of times to be like, ‘I'm just going stop thinking about it.’ And it can maybe be seen as denial, if anyone wants to label it such, but it can also actually just be me allowing myself to give myself a break from it being ‘the big thing.’ Which doesn't make it small. It just means, it doesn't need to be my big thing, for a minute. I can allow myself a rest.
Another big thing I’ve noticed lately is to recognise my expectations. You can put so much meaning into stuff and you have expectations of how things will go and if they don't go according to plan, you’re pissed or you feel bad about yourself. And, it's like ‘hang on — you created those expectations!’ No one's written your life beforehand and now it's deviating. Your life is just whatever is happening in that moment. And so the exercise is recognising when I'm pissed off, or I'm feeling hurt because of my expectations that weren’t met versus when someone is actually being disrespectful or inconsiderate, which is a totally different thing.
Photographed by Kierstan Renner
Creative direction by Delaney Tabron
Makeup creative direction by Kiekie Stanners for M.A.C Cosmetics